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England's scheming

The last ten years of economic growth have been the problem, not the solution

The Big Issue, 25 March 2009

Here is some news which you won’t have heard in any of the current media coverage about the credit crunch, the recession and the general economic ‘crisis’ engulfing the world. Here is a secret that you are not supposed to be party to, or at least are not supposed to have noticed: the last decade of frantic, greed-powered economic growth, which we are now supposed to be so keen to return to, has in many ways been a total disaster.

I’m not talking about the problems we’re already aware of: the overborrowed mortgages, the dodgy banks, the governments in hock to the finance industry. I’m talking about something which is both more subtle and more obvious: the impact of breakneck economic growth on the communities we all live in; on our everyday landscape.

We are taught from a young age to assume that economic growth is a good thing for everyone; this is an idea so deeply embedded in our society that it has become an ideology, to which our politicians, journalists, intellectuals, industrialists and ‘opinion formers’ all subscribe without question. As a result, we hear very little about the negative impacts that this mad rush for growth has on the real world – the world in which we all live.

Yet if we look around us, wherever we live, one impact is very clear: the relentless march of the identikit landscape. At local level, all over the country, Britain is being homogenised: cleaned-up, corporatised, cloned and made safe for the sacred act of consumption. The things that make our landscapes, urban and rural, special, distinctive, idiosyncratic and independent are being scoured out and replaced by things which would be familiar anywhere else in the country; even anywhere else in the world. The result is a simple and stark: everything is becoming the same as everything else.

Look around you, wherever you are, and you will see the economic boom’s legacy: the same logos in every high street; the same pub chains in every town; the same new housing estate in every county. The real story of our recent economic ‘success’ is a tale of a small sector of society – banks, property developers, superstores, magnates – making a killing at the expense of our historic landscapes and the distinctiveness of our places. The tide of money that has washed over us has smoothed out the edges of this once interesting country and taken away much of its character and authenticity. Landscapes have been replaced by blandscapes, and the country is looking more like a giant shopping mall every day.

In the name of economic efficiency, investment, growth, development – whatever words are used – the relationship between people and communities and the landscape they inhabit is being dismantled. The statistics tell a grim story, and give us some perspective on how the last decade of much-hymned ‘growth’ has affected the places we live and work

In the last decade alone, for example, we have lost 30,000 independent shops; destroyed, most of them, by competition from Tesco and the other supermarket chains (we have twice as many out of town superstores as we had ten years ago). Specialist shops were closing at a rate of around fifty a week even before the recession. In the last ten years we have lost a quarter of all our bank branches, a quarter of all our post offices and half of our independent second-hand bookshops. Identical fake Georgian ‘executive homes’ have spread like a rash across our green fields, and our towns have been ringed with bypasses and giant white warehouses serviced 24 hours a day by monstrous container lorries.

In the countryside, things are not much better. In that same decade, 60,000 labourers have left the land, 40 percent of our dairy farms have disappeared and farm income has fallen by 60%, destroying thousands of historic farms. Rising property prices, second home ownership and, again, the superstores, are ravaging our countryside, turning it from a working landscape into a stockbrokers’ theme park. Property prices in some parts of the country have risen nearly 400% in the last decade, pricing local people out of the housing market, and destroying local communities in the process. Remember that the next time you hear of the importance of ever-rising house prices.

But for a really striking example of the ongoing cloning of Britain , consider the fate of what is surely this country’s most lasting and popular institution: the local pub. The pub has been with us for a thousand years, and has been a feature of every town and village throughout living memory. There was a time, not so long ago, when the country was a tapestry of tastes, mapped out in our national drink, ale, which is as old as England itself. Every town had its own distinctive brewery, making its own distinctive beer and every neighbourhood had its own distinctive pub which served them. There was nothing quite like this network of boozy hospitality anywhere else in the world.

Today, that network is in freefall. Thirty-nine pubs are currently closing for good every week. In the last year alone, 2000 pubs have gone to the wall, taking around 20,000 jobs with them, and leaving holes at the heart of communities both rural and urban. In the countryside, half of England ’s villages are now ‘dry’- publess – for first time since the Norman Conquest of 1066. As for the breweries – a century ago there were 6000; now there are 600. Beer taxes, the smoking ban and the ongoing death of rural communities have all taken their toll on pubs, but the biggest culprit, ironically, has been the companies which own them: the ‘PubCos’. PubCos are effectively glorified property companies who main interest is not beer but profit, and for over a decade they have been squeezing the life out of pubs, many of which they have converted into housing to take advantage of the property boom. Over half of our pubs are in the hands of these corporate jackals, and the result is the accelerating death of a historic culture.

All in all, then, a depressing picture. But there is good news too, because all over the country people are increasingly fighting back. Recently, researching a book about this very subject, I met many brave, determined people standing up for their places, their landscapes and their communities in the face of this rising tide of corporate blandness. In Norfolk I spent time with small shopkeepers who are successfully fending off Tesco’s attempt to destroy their town with a new megastore. In Oxford I witnessed a canal community fighting to save the city’s last historic boatyard from destruction by executive flats. In east London I saw ethnic minority communities allying with cockney traders to protest an ancient and well-loved street market. In Chinatown I saw Chinese shop owners fighting off developers, and in Devon I spent time with small farmers fighting off the depradations of agribusiness and the superstores.

And what I witnessed as I did so was not just resistance, but positive alternatives. I discovered co-operatively owned pubs and squatted farms; I visited shops, boatyards and orchards which were effectively under community ownership. I saw that when local people are given the power to control their community they take it, and use it to fight a battle against the bland.

Maybe, then, the recession will give us a chance to stand back, survey the wreckage and decide we want to go in a different direction. Maybe the end of that crazy period of ‘growth’ will allow us to measure its true impacts and fashion a new direction. We need to. It’s now or never.